Notes from Underground Summary

Notes from Underground may start off with an impression that the narrator is confused and rambling in his mind about his life. But if looked into closely, it is seen that the UM is a depiction of humanity, of what it could’ve been to what it has to become in modern society. His beliefs and actions constantly seem to be contradicting with the idealistic social structures which eventually make him resort to self-loathing for the characteristic inconsistency. The narrator is introduced as a veteran of the Russian civil service living in the city of St. Petersburg in the 1860s. The name of the novel gives away the content structure that follows certain “notes” from the UM, discussing the life events that take place where he finds himself in socially and mentally challenging positions. These notes are written records of the times when he felt contradicted or confused due to the demands of modern structural society and the aftertaste of his self-evaluation. This certain clinical contradiction of his own character leads him to self-demean. The story starts off with him portraying himself in the narration as an ugly man who had been living underground for many years due to his incapability of socializing and fitting in the post-modern social construct. He also states how the intelligence of a person will definitely lead them to misery and eternal solitude. He reasons it by saying intelligent people are aware of the wrong in modern society and the unfair expectation that it upholds in our daily lives. Hence instead of just questioning the unfair and ludicrous structure of the modern state, it is rather followed and carried on. UM undoubtedly is seen to be struggling with the “dealing” of the expectations and therefore, pours them down in notes. 

The novel starts with the shorter note “Underground” where the UM is retired at the age of 40 from his civil right duties as he had inherited enough money to keep him going. This gives him plentiful time to reflect on his own characteristic issues and evaluate them. He goes on talking about the modern expectations of “beauty” and feels attacked whenever he comes across events that convey such a message. He discusses how current society has entirely submerged into the modernity that prioritizes beauty in vanity. He understands how the post-colonial readers’ minds may react to his arguments and hence, he takes a step forwards and states the expected reactions and then forwards to his own logical explanation. He then starts off with a very simple idea of “free will”. He explains how human beings and their rights to agency has always been an act of exercising free will whether or not it is for the betterment of self. He proceeds with the example of 2+2 being equal to 4 and this being a factual statement resulting from logical reasoning. But a person believing this and not any other summation of 2+2 is a breach of agency and free will itself. He shows how the incapability of us accepting 2+2=5 portrays the “free will” concept in the modern society. He states that a man of intelligence and consciousness may accept this but a man of hyper-conscious thinking may not. He leaves this topic and moves on to talk about suffering. In the context of modern society, suffering is nothing but the pleasure of conscious pain. This is nothing but a human way of creating unexpected events that are unrelated or non-consecutive of the daily industrialized life. He further goes on to state his own living conditions to back the proposed theory. He says he finds pleasure in his undiagnosed toothaches and liver pains which he deliberately suffers in and refuses to consult a doctor. The UM is proud of this exercise but he isn’t arguing others to be involved in the pleasure of suffering. He, in fact, portrays his self-loathing scenario through this case where he is ashamed of this practice of his. However, the UM is content with his existence as a living human being. He states how his conscious awareness of his being causes him to think in a middle ground in every aspect.

The second note titled “Apropos of the Wet Snow” goes into further detail on the contradiction and the UM’s struggle to fit in society’s constructs, referring to his actual life events. It shows a younger UM in his early 20s in the year 1840, who was less cynical towards the vanity of socializing and beauty. The note starts off with his involvement at a farewell dinner party thrown for a man named Zverkov by his mutual friends. The hatred towards Zverkov was clearly portrayed through the narration and he finds himself in a challenging situation there. He tries to socialize but because the constraints did not make sense to him, he ended up insulting everyone at the party, eventually embarrassing himself in front of them. He attempts to socialize was pure but he ends up expressing his disgust towards them, leading to his isolation in the group. Later he is seen to be entirely left behind by his group of “friends” who had decided to visit the brothel after party. UM shortly follows them in hopes of repairing his image in some whimsical way. The way he had treated his people around him had led him to self-analyze, leading to self-loathe once again. Such a cycle is not unknown to the man and he continues his narration. The story then proceeds in the setting of the brothel where he finds the men had already left. He, however, does not leave and decides to sleep with a prostitute named Liza. After he wakes up the next day, he decides to lecture Liza on her way of life and advises her to leave this profession for better spiritual health. The conversation makes Liza break into tears and he decides to hand her his address. After he is home, he gets into a heated argument with his servant over a petty issue. He also clearly mentions his disgust towards him which may have added to the petty reasoning. After a week or two, Liza shows up at his place. This infuriates him because he realizes how Liza had the rights to look down on him. He was agitated and ashamed by the fact that she was able to judge him for his reckless and unhealthy way of leading his life and may have a better say on it. This resulted in them getting into another shaken conversation which led UM to verbally abuse Liza to the point where she was broken emotionally. To make things even worse, the UM decides to throw money at her as a gesture to show that she needed money and only worked for money. This upsets her further and she leaves the premises hurt and confused.

It is very often seen how the UM finds himself in unwanted situations. Like the party where he potentially knew he was not wanted but still decided to go anyway in order to forcefully socialize. Of course, the said socializing did not go according to plan, thanks to the UM’s own inability to contain his disgust. Even his involvement with Liza could have stopped then and there but he still decided to latch on to her and take further steps to guide her in her life. Another extra step of giving his address to the girl was surely not missed. Even tinier incidents mentioned on this part of the note where he got himself entangled in an unnecessary conversation with a young soldier where he shared his views show how desperately he wished to fit into the world that we live in. His existence clearly showed how many of the younger generations of modern society who are aware and educated may suffer from fitting into the social standards. Even though there were moral and logical things that were taught to us, in the end, it always came down to how much society accepted it. The UM initially talked about free will and agency and discusses it as though society had instilled a tampered idea of agency in us, making us think we have free will when we don’t. Hence, viewing from a broader perspective, society itself had become so capitalistic, the only generation of purpose revolved around what was accepted by all. The accepted fact is tainted itself and hence, the UM shows us how hard it is for people who are “educated” or “intelligent” to be happy and at peace in this world.

The novel then ends abruptly stating how the UM was not sure when to stop. This was another sign of the lack of self-confidence that the UM had. This lack may have made him question if the readers were getting tired of the information or if it even made sense. The abrupt finishing of the novel showed how the UM did not know when to stop a conversation, something we had seen previously in him.